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Poetic license to be free

At the Cotton Club's Black on Black Rhyme night, poets say what they feel gets censored outside.

Published June 9, 2006

TAMPA - The windowless Cotton Club might be confused for a strip club, walled by mirrors that offer patrons an assortment of views from any seat.

But people come to hear, not see, reflections every Tuesday night at the club, where Marvin Gaye awaits in the jukebox, and the bar sells half-pint bottles of liquor that come with a small tub of ice.

On the club's chessboard-like black and white floor, poets, most of them black, rise to the microphone and expel their feelings before listeners, who shake their keys when they feel a connection.

The feelings black men convey in rhythmic cadences are sometimes contradictory but always passionate. They reflect a national survey released this week, which painted a complex portrait of black men in America.

Among the findings: Black men recognize opportunity but know discrimination lurks like a land mine. They believe in the American dream but believe they must work harder than whites to achieve it. Most take responsibility for their collective problems but report a political, economic and justice system tilted against them.

Black men can relate to those views but often don't publicly express them for fear of opening themselves to censorship and scrutiny, says the poet who goes by "L.I.F.E.": Living It For Everyone.

Those concerns disappear at the Cotton Club, during sessions called Black on Black Rhyme. People feel emboldened.

"This allows us a place where we can express our feelings with others who feel the same way," said Walter "Wally B" Jennings, 29, who founded Black on Black Rhyme.

L.I.F.E., 31, who runs the event with a fellow poet, called it the "closest thing to church."

In the West Tampa club on Howard Avenue, the regulars at the microphone included poets who go by "Spoken X," "Exotica" and the "Black Girl."

Pieces focused on incest, molestation, relationships, suicide, war on terrorism, poverty and the art of spoken word. The poems dipped into overtly sexual themes as the evening wound down, as if someone had put the kids to bed.

It is a venue for experienced poets who compete nationally, as well as for rookies such as Kenny Rivas, who had a lot on his mind.

The survey, conducted by the Washington Post, Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University, found that more than half of black men consider marriage important and six in 10 strongly value having children. Yet at least 38 percent of black fathers surveyed weren't living with at least one of their young children.

"It's just a lack of education," said Rivas, 20, whose father was absent much of his life. "A lot of these boys grow up to be men and aren't raised properly, and they're not taught to be there for their children."

The poll showed that most black men worry the police will treat them unfairly. Rivas does, too. One in four said they have been victims of a violent crime.

He became interested in spoken word because he loves music. He learned recently that his paternal grandfather was a famous jazz musician.

"So it's in my blood," he said.

He sat in the corner of the Cotton Club across from his girlfriend and waited for his moment.

He had titled his poem Real Talk. He wrote it in 15 minutes the day before.

"What inspired me is my everyday life," said Rivas, who was born in the South Bronx of New York City and grew up in the transient area of Tampa known as Suitcase City. "Seeing the conditions of my people out here. Seeing the conditions of my peers."

L.I.F.E. called Rivas' name, and he rose from his bar stool, gripping a notepad. The words came out haltingly but persuasively.

I can bet that almost everybody in here has family, friends or somebody they know that's locked in prison now or has been locked up in the past. Now that's not just a coincidence. Our people are not these vicious thugs and criminals that they, the media and society, portray us to be.

And the thing about it is that America had to come up with a new way to enslave us in this country so what better way to do that than the prison system ...

The audience applauded and nodded.

The poll showed that seven in 10 black men know someone close to them who has gone to prison or jail. Two-thirds of black males believe courts are more likely to convict black men than whites.

The fact that blacks are overrepresented in prisons, Rivas says, proves that the system is broken, locking up nonviolent offenders and stocking juries with whites who can't relate to the upbringing of poor blacks.

"My people feel me on this," Rivas told the crowd before closing. "Peace and right on to the real. Let's educate."

Justin George can be reached at 813 226-3368 or

[Last modified June 9, 2006, 06:01:28]

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